Art Treasures of Washington – Early Portrait Painters

THE Corcoran Gallery rejoices in a very considerable collection of miscellaneous portraits by early American painters, which have come to the Gallery by purchase, gift, and bequest, and form an interesting and pertinent feature of an American gallery.

While the collection is not so important, nor so local in character, as the similar collections of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Boston or Metropolitan Museums, nor so complete in the following out of the work of individual painters, it includes, nevertheless, one or more examples by nearly all the prominent American painters from the Colonial period down to the middle of the last century.

One of the chef d’oeuvres of the collection, from the point of view of its rarity, is the portrait of Edward Greene Malbone (1777-1807) by himself. presented to the Gallery by Mr. Corcoran, in 1883. It was purchased by the donor from George Douglass Brewerton.

Malbone was, of course, chiefly distinguished as a miniature painter, and portraits by him, other than miniatures, are exceedingly rare. He was born in Newport, Rhode Island, August, 1777. He received some instruction from a local scene painter, and was so precocious that, in his sixteenth year, he painted a portrait of considerable merit, so that, although his life was very brief, he has left ample evidence of a rare genius.

He established himself in Boston as a miniaturist, and there formed a close friendship with Allston, with whom, in consequence of failing health, he removed in the winter of 1800, to Charleston, South Carolina, where some of his best works were produced. Malbone accompanied Allston to London in May, 1801, and while there painted his most celebrated miniature, The Hours,” now in the Providence Athenaeum, a group of three beautiful girls, representing Past, Present, and Future. On returning to this country, Malbone chose Charles-ton for his permanent residence, visiting the north periodically in the interest of his profession.

In 1806, his health still failing, he sought relief in Jamaica, but feeling no benefit from the change, started home and died on reaching Savannah on May 7, 1807, in the thirtieth year of his age.

Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) is represented in the collection by three canvases, of which the most important is the ” Portrait of Chief Justice Shippen, of Pennsylvania.” This is one of those sterling portraits of distinguished men, in the painting of which Stuart developed the fulness of his powers. The canvas belongs to the painter’s ablest period, and is in an excellent state of preservation. It was purchased in 1874 from Mrs. Pringle, of George-town, South Carolina, who was a great grand-daughter of the sitter.

Edward Shippen belonged to an old Philadelphia family, distinguished throughout generations for public services to the country. His great grand-father, Edward Shippen, was of English birth, having emigrated to Boston in 1668, where he be-came a wealthy merchant. He married Elizabeth Lybrand, a Quakeress, united with that sect and shared the ” jailings, whippings, and banishments, the fines and imprisonments ” that were inflicted on the Quakers in those days. In 1693 Mr. Shippen was either banished or driven to take refuge in Philadelphia, where his wealth and character obtained for him position and influence. In 1701, he became Mayor of Philadelphia, being so named in William Penn’s charter of that year, and during this year he was appointed, by Penn, to be one of his commissioners of property, holding the office until his death.

Edward’s son Joseph, grandfather of Chief Justice Shippen, was among the men of science of his day, and joined with Benjamin Franklin in founding the Junto, ” for mutual information and the public good.” Joseph’s son Edward, was no less eminent in his way than his forebears. In early life he laid out and founded Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, and was one of the founders of the College of New Jersey, a subscriber to the Philadelphia Academy (afterwards the University of Pennsylvania), a founder of the Pennsylvania Hospital and the American Philosophical Society.

Edward, son of the second Edward, and the subject of the portrait, was born in Philadelphia in 1729 and died there in 1806, having filled many important offices, for which his profession of jurist fitted him. He was made chief justice of the Supreme Court, by Governor McKean, in 1799, and held the office until his resignation in 1805. To his pen we owe the first law reports in Pennsylvania. The best extant portrait of him is this one by Gilbert Stuart, preserved by the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. His third daughter, Margaret, familiarly known as ” Peggy Shippen,” was a great belle and beauty in her day, and became the second wife of Benedict Arnold.

It was just such a man as this that inspired Stu-art’s keenest interest, and the portrait is a superb specimen of his most eloquent style, needing little comment to attract the observer to its rare qualities of colour, character, form, and masterly expressiveness.

The replica of the Athenaeum portrait of Washington, by Gilbert Stuart, was presented to the Corcoran Gallery in 1902, by Mrs. Benjamin Ogle Tayloe, and though it appears a perfunctory example of this familiar type, its history is well authenticated. It was purchased from Stuart himself by Colonel John Tayloe, of Mount Airy.

The third Stuart is .a ” Portrait of Colonel Samuel Miles,” and was a gift to the institution from Miss Elizabeth F. McKean, in 1909. This is an interesting and characteristic example, despite the ravages of time and the restorer, which have combined to destroy the original vigour of the portrait.

As is well known, Stuart availed himself of every advantage offered by the surface upon which he painted. The portrait of Colonel Miles is done upon a wooden panel, which has been carefully grained with a tool to resemble English twill can-vas — a characteristic trick of the painter, and one that often figures in the identification of doubtful portraits. The portrait has been a very vigorous work of probably Stuart’s best period. It has lost vitality in the process of cleaning and restoration, but a good deal of power still remains, as well as some original brush marks, which testify to its pristine superiority.

Miles was prominent in the early history of our country, and was one of the first to espouse the cause of independence, taking an active part in op-position to the parliament of Great Britain. He raised the second company of militia that was formed on that occasion, and when the militia became a regiment, was elected colonel. He was a Pennsylvanian by birth and service, a large land owner in Chester County, where he laid out the town of Milesburg, and was for one year, 1790, Mayor of Philadelphia. His autobiography written in 1802, and published in the American Historical Record (Philadelphia, 1873), is an interesting paper, and a valuable contribution to the history of the battle of Long Island.

One of the treasures of the collection is a portrait in full length of Andrew Jackson, by Thomas Sully (1783-1872), which belonged to Mr. Corcoran’s private collection and came to the Gallery with the original gift. It was painted, according to the register,1 in 1845. The canvas is signed and dated, but the date is undecipherable. It represents Jackson as a man of about fifty years of age, tall, thin, and wiry, the very embodiment of his sobriquet, ” Old Hickory.” The presentment is gracious, full of manly verve and strength, and the head is very distinguished.

Of the early presidents of the United States, Jackson’s portrait is, after Washington’s, the most familiar. General Jackson had light blue eyes and sandy hair. His face and figure were easily caricatured and many fine portraits exist among the cartoons made of him during his public life. An English traveller of the time makes this vivid description of him :

” General Jackson is tall, bony, and thin, with an erect, military bearing, and a head set with a considerable fierté upon his shoulders. A stranger would at once pronounce upon his profession, and his frame and features, voice and action, have a natural and most peculiar warlikeness. He has, not to speak disrespectfully, a game cock all over him. His face is unlike any other. Its prevailing expression is energy, but there is, so to speak, a lofty honourableness in its worn lines. His eye is of a dangerous fixedness, deep-set and overhung by bushy grey eyebrows. His features are long, with strong, ridgy lines running through his cheeks. His fore-head is a good deal seamed and his white hair, stiff and wiry, brushed obstinately back.”

A full-length, cabinet size portrait of James Madison, by Sully was received in 1877, from F. E. Church, the painter, through Mr. Avery. The third example of the artist owned by the Corcoran Gallery is a portrait of himself, painted in 1850, and received with the original gift.

One of the most interesting portraits in the collection, is of Chief Justice Marshall, of Virginia, attributed to Robert M. Sully (1803-1855), a nephew and pupil of Thomas. The portrait is a powerful study of character. Though Robert Sully began his studies under his uncle, in Philadelphia, his style and habits of painting reflect much more strongly the influences of his four years residence in England. He was not so clever a crafts-man as his master — the neckcloth of this portrait is notoriously badly painted — though probably re-stored — but the head and hand are very able, and, in their freedom from traditional treatment, develop an interesting, personal sort of style that is above all eminently sincere, and therefore good.

Chief Justice Marshall was the subject of several portraits by this painter. What is claimed as the original was painted for the constitutional convention of Virginia, but, no appropriation being made for it, it remained in the possession of the artist and became the property of his father-in-law, Garland Thompson, of Virginia, and is now owned in Chicago. A replica is in the Court House at Staunton, Virginia, and another in the Historical Society at Madison, Wisconsin.

The portrait is unsigned and was until 1908 attributed to Thomas Sully.

Like Jackson, portraits and statues of Chief Justice Marshall abound in Washington. He was tall, plain in dress, and somewhat awkward in appearance, but had a keen black eye and overflowed with geniality and kind feeling.

The Gallery owns an excellent example of the work of Chester Harding (1792-1866) in his portrait of John Randolph, of Roanoke, painted about 1830. This interesting character was a vigorous figure in the early days of the Republic. He claimed the distinction of being a descendant from Pocohontas by her marriage with John Rolfe. His personal appearance was striking, and he is de-scribed as being ” six feet in height, very slender, with long, skinny fingers, which he pointed and shook at those against whom he spoke.” Although Randolph was pugnacious in argument, he appears to have been imbued with a hatred of war, which animated his diatribes against Napoleon, and his resolute opposition to the war policy of Madison.

Harding’s portrait is a vigorous presentment, full of individuality and character. The style of painting is very personal, and bears out his assertion that he was practically self taught. Harding’s career is graphically described in his own words in Dunlap’s ” History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design.” He was born in Conway, Massachusetts, of poor parentage, married early, and after many adventures and vicissitudes set up as a sign painter in Pittsburgh, in about his twenty-fifth year. Inspired by his own tentative efforts in portraiture, he grew disgusted with his vocation, neglected his customers, and conceived the idea of going to Kentucky, where he subsequently established himself, in the town of Paris, taking rooms, and commencing business at once.

His price was $25, which, he tells us, the Kentuckians paid cheerfully, though he trembled at his own temerity in asking so much; and here he painted about an hundred heads, laying aside sufficient funds for a visit to Philadelphia. He passed five or six weeks in Philadelphia, studying the portraits of Sully and others, and then returned to Kentucky, to renew his labours under the influence of what he had seen.

The effect of his visit to Philadelphia, so far from proving a stimulus was, at first very discouraging to Harding, whose vanity had received a severe blow in beholding the work of his contemporaries. He owns to having been intimidated by the knowledge of the many obstacles that he must overcome, before he could arrive at distinction in to have felt the presence of more difficulties than he had dreamed of, before his visit to the metropolis; all of which reacted upon his activities and paralyzed his efforts at production.

The period of his return was also coincident with the financial crisis in the affairs of the country, which operated also against him, and orders for portraits were not so plenty. In search of betterment of fortunes, he removed to St. Louis, where he raised his price to $40, and remained until 1821, when he made his début in Washington. His success was immediate, and he painted about forty heads during the winter and spring, and then pushed on to Boston, on a pilgrimage to Stuart, where he finally established himself, and had a great vogue. In 1823 Harding went to London, meeting also with success, and after three years’ absence, returned to Boston, where he died in 1866.

Throughout his career, Harding seems to have been content with the soberer virtues of portraiture. His John Randolph is strong in character, as has been said, and in a style very personal. It has, on the other hand, little quality, and no attempt at anything more subtle than the record of the local colour in the picture. This he manages in a way almost decorative. There is something quaint in his frank noting of the sitter’s spotted blue tie, and the red covering of the chair across which his arm is thrown. There sits John Randolph, very much as he must have looked — a Southerner all through, and something of the old woman about him. The portrait exerts the spell of personality. It was purchased by Mr. Corcoran, for the Gallery, from L, R. Page, Esq., on November 8, 1875.

For what it lacks we have only to compare it an instant, with a delicious portrait of the same sitter, as a boy, by Gilbert Stuart, owned by Mrs. C. T. B. Coleman, and deposited by her in the Gallery. This is a chef d’oeuvre of Harding’s eminent contemporary, one of the loveliest Stuart’s in existence, and the comparison of the two is very interesting and not a little instructive. The pose of the portraits is quite similar, and the traits of the boy we find developed in the man.

But Stuart’s colour, his exquisite method of painting, the ineffable loveliness of the quality of the canvas is inimitable. The eyes are lustrous, the cheeks of transparent, wonderful skin beneath which the blood pulsates. It is all so smooth, s0 flowing, so suave, so graceful and so strong. The picture belongs to Stuart’s most superb period, the transition between the English and American manner.

Of Stuart’s contemporaries we have a fine ex-ample of the art of John Neagle (1799-1865) in his portrait of Colonel Richard M. Johnson, Vice-President of the United States from 1837 to 1841. It came to the Gallery in 1902, as the gift of Mrs. Benjamin Ogle Tayloe.

The portrait is a vigorous and forceful example, depicting Johnson as a ruddy faced genial personality, seated in an easy attitude and wearing an informal costume, of which the striking feature is a red waistcoat. There is an admirable sense of flesh and blood, of bone and muscle, nicely tempered by a very definite expression, which animates the whole canvas, and gives life to it.

Neagle had a thoughtful habit of inscribing various useful data on the backs or faces of his canvases. This orle is no exception to the rule. On the back appears the following inscription : ” Col. Richard M. Johnson, painted from life by John Neagle, Frankfort, Kentucky, March 9th, 1843. Col. R. M. Johnson, Vice-President of the United States, under the administration of Martin Van Buren. Died November 19th, 1850.”

A portrait of Benjamin Franklin, attributed to Duplessis in the old catalogues of the Corcoran Gallery, has recently (since 1908) been assigned to Joseph Wright, on the strength of certain proofs brought to light in defence of this claim, by Charles Henry Hart.

The basis of the argument by which Mr. Hart establishes his authority for asserting that the portrait is by Wright, and not by Duplessis, is interestingly set forth, by him, in a pamphlet published in 1908, on ” Joseph Wright’s Portrait of Franklin belonging to the Royal Society, London,” and reprinted in a limited edition from the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, for July, 1908.

The portrait in the Corcoran Gallery was purchased in 1885 from Henry Stevens, of London, an eccentric character, who dealt in Americana, and who had bought it three years earlier from Graves, the print seller, and successor of Boydell. Upon the back of the picture is this inscription : ” This picture of Dr. Franklin was painted at Paris, 1782, and was presented by him to Mr. William Hodgson, of Coleman Street, as a token of his regard and friendship.”

Hodgson was a friend of Franklin and of the Colonies, acting on the behalf of both in England, for the exchange of American prisoners of war, and the amelioration of their condition during confinement.

There seems little doubt from Mr. Hart’s paper that the portrait in the Corcoran Gallery is by, or after, Joseph Wright. The painter is an interesting one, his brief life having been full of incident, and his opportunities exceptional. He was born in Bordentown, New Jersey, the son of Patience Wright, that unique figure in the history of American sculpture, and accompanied his mother to London, where she settled in 1772, plying her trade of making portraits in wax, with remarkable success. Joseph studied painting under Benjamin West, and also with John Hoppner, who married his sister. His sojourn in France was rather brief, something short of a year, he sailing for home on the Argo, late in October, 1782. He carried with him a letter of introduction from Franklin to Washington, from whom he received the appointment to be first die-sinker of the United States Mint. He perished in the yellow fever epidemic, in Philadelphia, in 1793.

The series of six portraits of noted men by Charles Loring Elliott (1812-1868) gives a fair idea of the scope and prowess of this portrait painter, who is best represented in the Corcoran Gallery by his portrait of James C. McGuire, a former trustee of the institution, and of Colonel Thomas L. McKenney.

Elliott was born in Scipio, New York, and began life humbly, as a clerk in a store in Syracuse. He removed to New York in 1834 and became a pupil of John Trumbull, and of Quidor. He was a prolific painter, and is said to have accomplished during his comparatively short life — he lived but fifty-six years — more than seven hundred portraits, including some of the most prominent men of his time. He died in Albany in 1868.

Elliott’s work is of uneven merit, which biographers have attributed to his own variable temperament, and somewhat dissipated habits of life. Like Stuart, whose work he closely studied, he is at his best in the portraits of men of character and achievement. The vigour and truth of such likenesses, as well as the colour and quality which distinguish them, place these portraits amongst the best of his epoch.

Tuckerman appreciatively writes of him : ” Elliott is a man of will rather than sensibility, one who grasps keenly his subject, rather than is magnetized thereby : his touch is bold and free; he seizes the genuine and pierces the conventional, he has a natural and robust feeling for colour; he is more vigorous than delicate. , . . There is a manly instinct which leads him to give prominence to the essential and characteristic, and the more of a man his subject is, in intellect, spirit, feature, and expression, the more satisfactory will be the ‘counterfeit presentment.’ ”

Trumbull is said to have at first discouraged him, but finally to have been won by his determined efforts and evidence of ability, and to have aided him by granting him access to the casts in the American Academy, instructing and helping him, while constantly opposing his career, as one of privation and discouragement. Finally Elliott broke away from Trumbull and went to study under Quidor, who had been a fellow student with Inman under Jarvis, and through whom he doubtless picked up his reverence for the English traditions in portrait painting, which he follows to a certain extent.

Tuckerman related with much graphic detail how, in his formative days, he became the proud owner of an original Stuart, which he studied profoundly and which exerted a powerful influence in the formation of his style.

Elliott apparently never went abroad, despite which there is nothing provincial or uncertain about his technique, and he was for a time one of the most capable portrait painters in the country. His drawing is firm, the colour robust and fresh, and he used a full, fearless brush. He painted many eminent men — statesmen, military celebrities, clergymen, and authors.

Of these owned by the Corcoran Gallery, three were the bequest of the late James C. McGuire, who, as has been mentioned, had a notable private collection, contemporary with Mr. Corcoran’s. Mr. McGuire, whose son is the present director of the Gallery, was one of the original trustees, appointed by the donor. On his death, in 1888, he bequeathed to the Gallery his portrait of himself, with those of Colonel Thomas L. McKenney and William Cullen Bryant, by Elliott, and a portrait of Professor Joseph Henry, by Huntington.

Elliott’s portrait of Mr. McGuire is one of his finest efforts. The sitter is a handsome, young man of the typical Irish type, with black hair and blue eyes. He wears the picturesque costume of the early fifties. The head is solidly painted, is full of a vigorous sense of personality, and is wholesome and rich in colour. The date of the canvas is 1854.

The portrait of Colonel McKenney is even more attractive, if possible, in its frank, positive delineation of character. The complexion is of that ruddy hue, which most appealed to him; and the hair, profuse and beautifully white, is quite a master-piece in texture. McKen-ney was a picturesque figure in Washington, remembered even yet, by some of the older residents of the District, though he died in 1859, as a familiar boulevardier to be seen at the fashionable hour, wrapped in his grey shawl, in which Elliott has painted him, pacing the most frequented thoroughfares. It was thus that Elliott learned to know him, and feeling an irresistible impulse to put so winning a personality upon canvas, finally addressed him, introducing himself, and frankly asking him to pose. McKenney was delighted, and Mr. McGuire bought the picture.

McKenney was an Indian agent. In 1824 he was placed in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and in 1826 was given a special commission with Lewis Cass to negotiate an important treaty with the Chippewa Indians at Fond du Lac, in the Territory of Michigan.

Elliott was at his best in heads. When he at-tempted whole-lengths, the result was much less fortunate. He had little idea of composition or of concentration, and in these larger portraits he gives the unimportant details as much, if not more insistence than the face. The full-length portrait of W. W. Corcoran, painted from life in 1867, one year before the painter’s death, when the sitter was sixty-nine years of age, carries out most of his serious faults. The carpet, chairs, and various accessories obtrude themselves upon the attention of the beholder, to the detriment of the ensemble. The boots are especially marvellous and the eye keeps returning to their shapely and lustrous smoothness. The portrait is regrettably uninspired, considering its importance in the collection.

The portrait of Joseph Henry, the noted physicist (1797-1878), a former trustee of the Gallery, and the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, by Daniel Huntington (1816-1906), has certain sober qualities of strength and resemblance, and is, of course, important as the portrait of a distinguished Washingtonian. It is considered by those who knew Henry as the best portrait of him ever made, though, as a matter of fact, he never sat for the picture. Huntington painted it from sketches which he made while his subject was lecturing.

Huntington is also represented by a replica of ” Mercy’s Dream,” from Bunyan’s ” Pilgrim’s Progress,” the original of which is owned by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

To an early period of the Republic belongs an-other notable name associated with a promise only partially realized, that of John Vanderlyn (1776-1852). Though he painted many excellent portraits, his fame rests chiefly upon two pictures — ” Marius among the Ruins of Carthage ” and the nude figure of ” Ariadne.”

The one example of Vanderlyn owned by the Corcoran Gallery, is a portrait of General Zachary Taylor, painted in 1852, and one of the last of his portraits. It was done from life, soon after President Taylor was inaugurated. To relieve the distress of the veteran artist, it was raffled off for $350 and was won by Clark Mills, the sculptor, who afterwards sold it to this Gallery. Vanderlyn was born and died in Kingston, Ulster County, New York. His life was fraught with vicissitudes and he died in destitute circumstances.

The collection contains two portraits of the series of distinguished Frenchmen, painted by Rembrandt Peale, during his residence in Paris. That of M. Lasteyrie, the economist and author, was once a part of the collection belonging to the famous Peale Museum. That of Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint Pierre, the author of ” Paul and Virginia,” was painted from life in Paris in 1808, and was a gift to the Gallery from George W. Riggs, in August, 1873. It appears in the first edition of the catalogue.

The Gallery is also the custodian of Rembrandt Peale’s equestrian portrait of ” Washington before Yorktown,” which belongs to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.